Camille Saint-Saëns

David Nice’s terrific Russian Music Course started up again last week, with Steven Isserlis and Elizabeth Wilson as guests. “But Saint-Saëns isn’t Russian,” you might say, and you would be right. In searching around for performances featuring Isserlis, however, I ran across an Isserlis CD, Cello Music from Proust’s Salons, which in turn led me to this:

The piece, included on the CD albeit with a different pianist, is Cello Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op 32 (1872) by Camille Saint-Saëns, of which the composer’s mother didn’t entirely approve:

Charles-Marie Widor told the story of the composition of the third movement. After attending the successful first performance of the Sonata, Saint-Saëns, surprised that his mother had made no comment on the piece, asked: ‘Don’t you have anything to say? Aren’t you pleased?’ Mme. Saint-Saëns then said she liked the first two movements, but not the finale. A few days later he triumphantly told her: ‘I have composed a new finale! Do you want to hear it?’ This is the finale we know today. It contains quotes from the first act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine—possibly a favourite of Saint-Saëns’s mother’s.

In his comments on the CD, Isserlis, with typical dry wit, wrote:

A few years ago, I embarked upon the major project of reading Proust’s near-endless masterpiece ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’; it took me – with some lengthy breaks – about eighteen months. Amazing though it was, I can’t say that I became a complete Proust nut, as some of my friends have become (the pianist Jeremy Denk, for one). There were some bits I couldn’t wait to finish! But there is so much that is wonderful, almost needless to say – including the descriptions of salon hosts/hostesses and guests listening to music, many of which are absolutely hilarious.

Here’s Isserlis on the subject of Saint-Saëns:

“Saint-Saëns is famous, of course; but people are so snobbish about him! They consistently describe him as a third-rate composer. Rubbish, say I; of course, not all his music is great, by any means – but a lot of it isn’t MEANT to be great, in the sense of a profound statement about life and the human condition. That doesn’t make him a bad composer! He produced music, as he put it, as an apple-tree produces apples – almost as if he couldn’t help it. Some of it is just meant to entertain, some of it is deeper; his ‘Requiem’, for instance, is a seriously beautiful work. I don’t know nearly enough Saint-Saens; but of the pieces I do know, there’s not one that I don’t like – and several that I love. Besides, the man was astonishing: he was a classical scholar, a respected astronomer (who designed his own telescope) , a published poet, a philosopher and logician, a playwright, a travel writer, a brilliant mathematician, an animal rights activist, as well as being an amazing pianist, a fine conductor, and possibly the greatest organist of his day. He composed, too. What a phenomenon! I wonder whether the people who are sniffy about him could match that range of achievements…”

Bonus Track 1

Bonus Track 2

There are many sources for image at the head of the post. Here is one.

Revisiting John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur

Adams wrote of the work:

When I was asked by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, to compose a special piece for the opening, I immediately began searching my mind for an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast—as I am, and as are so many who’ve made the journey here, both physically and spiritually.

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Bringing in Spring with Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane

Shawn Jaeger, photo by Arthur Moeller

Shawn Jaeger‘s The Cold Pane is an exquisite summoning of spring. Jaeger’s composition sets five texts by Wendell Berry. They can be found here, together with the score. The piece is scored for soprano and chamber ensemble (clarinet in B-flat, mandolin, violin, double bass). The performers are Contemporaneous members Lucy Dhegrae, Vicente Alexim (clarinet), Colin Davin (mandolin), Josh Henderson (violin), and Pat Swoboda (double bass). David Bloom conducts.

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A Feast of Chamber Music

Thanks to David Nice’s Russian Music class, I’ve been introduced not only to a wealth of chamber music I didn’t know, but also to a cornucopia of brilliant musicians. In a past class, this included Boris Giltburg, and in the most recent class Alina Ibragimova and Benjamin Baker—and through Baker, Daniel Lebhardt. Continue reading